Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today continues our series of six posts on Broadway musicals of 1940. While my initial intention was to highlight shows that opened in 1939 (since this is the 75th anniversary of that marvelously entertaining year), I realized that 1940 has been represented less frequently on this site — almost criminally so. The only show we’ve covered before was Louisiana Purchase, and since 1940 premiered a handful of great works that deserve our attention, I thought it only fair that we give the year (and the shows within it) the deserved recognition. So far we’ve done Higher And Higher and Keep Off The Grass. Today…
III. Hold On To Your Hats (09/11/40 – 02/01/41)
Best remembered as Al Jolson’s big Broadway comeback — his first stage musical in over nine years — Hold On To Your Hats is one of those shows that you expect to be tailored around the talents of a particular star, and thus, not worthy of examination on its own merits. But this is not entirely the case; while Jolson gets the most to do and all the best songs, his “shtick” wasn’t allowed as much free reign, because the book, by Guy Bolton, Matt Brooks and Eddie Davis, had more substance than “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” was used to having. While the book’s nothing to be particularly boastful about (unlike some of our upcoming 1940 shows), the premise of Jolson as a radio star, The Lone Rider, a parody of an obvious fictional cowboy, who is called upon by fans to take on a real Western bandit, is clever and amusing. (And not something you’d ever think to see of Jolson.) Even better, Jolson was surrounded by a strong cast that included Martha Raye, Jack Whiting, Eunice Healey (who replaced Jolson’s then wife Ruby Keeler out of town), George Church, and Arnold Moss. The show had all the makings of a hit, but Jolson soon tired of the routine, and closed the show in advance.
Today, as is usually the case with the shows covered here, our attention is best served on the score. Burton Lane and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg teamed to write a fun show in which every song, I can honestly say, is a favorite of mine. The numbers alternate between romantic and cheeky, wistful and silly. The only full recording of the score was done by Ben Bagley, and although I don’t think it’s a great representation of the songs, the recording is invaluable for Broadway buffs interested in this piece, so I do recommend it. Above is the Bagley recording of Nancy Grennan Hillner and Arthur Siegel with “The World Is In My Arms,” which was introduced by Whiting and Healey and is probably one of the score’s most recorded tunes. It’s a sweet ditty, and if earnestly performed, I can imagine, quite effective.
Raye and Church teamed for the show’s cleverest song, “Life Was Pie For The Pioneer.” The recording above of Arthur Siegel, Helen Gallagher, and Carleton Carpenter comes from the Bagley album. Such a catchy and light-hearted tune — definitely a Harburg lyric! Meanwhile, the ensemble took on another fun one with “Don’t Let It Get You Down.” The recording below is by Michael Feinstein (and Burton Lane).
Jolson and Raye duetted on the jovially cute “Would You Be So Kindly?” The rendition below comes from a September 16, 1940 broadcast of The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show. Here’s Gracie!
And we end with Jolson’s big first act closer, “There’s A Great Day Coming Mañana” This parody of the Youmans tune from the show with a similar title is another classic. Martha Raye performed the song when she played in 4, Girls, 4 and the recording below is an excerpt from a live performance. (If anyone has the full thing, let me know!)
Come back next Monday for a new 1940 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of The New Dick Van Dyke Show!